Jared Robson is an undergraduate in graphic design at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UTK). This article is based upon an interview with Jared about building video games for individuals with autism.
Currently, I’m working on a virtual reality game for autistic learners that builds life skills via a virtual reality experience. It doesn't use the typical controllers but is completely hands-free, so that the user can move around in the space with their actual hands. It's a very fun and immersive experience for users and they can potentially build twenty different life skills through play.
Dr. David Cihak, who is the Associate Dean of Education at University of Tennessee, has a background in special education, so our project is dear to him. He ensures that we have the funding we need for the project and I am grateful for his help and guidance. My godson is autistic, so our focus is close to my heart.
The process of the game is learning to make a pizza. We’re using the Oculus Quest VR headset for ocular visual imaging. It’s got four IR sensors—little sensors on the front face. We’re setting it up so that it’s got hand tracking: it watches the user's hands as they move. Hand controllers can create a disconnect between reality and virtual reality. But with the Oculus, the users make the pizza with their own hands, grab the pizza, pick it up, put it in the oven, lay the dough out and so forth. It is very realistic and appropriate for participation by people who are anywhere on the autism spectrum.
Working on the project with Dr. Cihak and me are: Timothy Arment, who is a lecturing professor at UT; Professor Cary Staples, professor in graphic design at UTK ; and, graduate student Michael Morrow.
We’ve identified twenty different steps and related skills in the pizza-making process. This includes everything from washing your hands to cutting the pizza after it’s cooled down. The goals of our work are to build confidence and some basic life skills and work skills. Our hope is that playing the game might prepare them for a job at a restaurant such as Domino's or Pizza Hut.
At this point, we are testing the program. We’re getting to the point where we can bring participants in to test this semester. From there, we can go on to see how well it works, and if so, then how much more realistic we can make it.
Another note about Jared: "I'm a marine corps veteran of 8 years. When I came back from Iraq I had PTSD pretty bad which made me not want to be around other people. I would play video games for hours on end I started to realize that through the game play I was starting to have an easier transition into living in a civilian society. Now through more research and testing I can relate video games very closely to EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Rehabilitation) therapy, which is a newer therapy. This therapy uses lights and vibrations to remap certain areas of you brain. This is also the same sensory actions the video games can and often times are able to mimic. Since this discovery I have been going to graphic design school at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville so that I can create more realistic games to help others."
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